by Timothy Lane 1/13/14
I noticed that Turner Classic Movies recently presented a version of The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde, and it occurred to me that most people have no idea of what exactly the good doctor’s evil alter ego actually did. Stevenson never really said, no doubt reflecting the Victorian sensibilities of his readership.
To be sure, we do know that Hyde was involved in two violent acts. In one, he knocked down a girl, and in compensation (which shows at least some sense of responsibility) he paid off with some of Dr. Jekyll’s money. (Some might consider this a metaphor for modern liberals, who always prefer to force other people to pay the liberals’ own financial and moral debts.) Later, after Jekyll had apparently tried to keep Edward Hyde under wraps, the latter wantonly beats and kills a Member of Parliament for no reason that is given. This certainly indicates some sort of violent inclination on Hyde’s part (which, it must be remembered, is merely what Jekyll himself wanted to do – without being seen as misbehaving). Perhaps Hyde consorted with prostitutes and treated them very roughly, in the tradition of the Marquis de Sade. (The infamous marquis was one of the 3 prisoners in the Bastille when the revolutionaries stormed it, having been imprisoned for the murder of a prostitute using Spanish fly. Those curious about this historical incident can read about it in the title article of The Beetle of Aphrodite by Martin Howell and Peter Ford. Meanwhile, it’s a lovely commentary on leftist revolutionaries that their famous strike against privilege actually freed an aristocrat guilty of the murder of a “working girl.”)
Jekyll had a bit of a wild reputation in his youth, which then as now was hardly unusual (one common expression for this sort of behavior was “sowing a few wild oats”). We may reasonably assume that the reason he was considered so much better behaved as an adult was that he let Hyde indulge in all those pleasant (but immoral, ad shocking to good society of the time) vices. Alcohol? Drugs? Prostitution? We have no way of knowing. Anti- social behavior would seem to have been very rare, or we would presumably have heard about it. (The police certainly had no trouble figuring out that Hyde committed his sole known violent crime, though laying their hands on him was understandably more difficult.)
It’s an interesting story, and perhaps worth an article here in its own right, but I have another thought on the subject. If we knew what Hyde was actually doing, how would people today react? Perhaps someone would complain about unprotected sex if he didn’t use condoms, but who knows? He certainly was capable of protecting his own interests, and was at least capable of some sort of pragmatic sense of responsibility as well. If he were boozing or drugging himself, he could move to Boulder, Colorado and fit right in. (Dr. Jekyll, on the other hand, would probably seem rather priggish in such a community. And might he be one of the hated one percent as well?)
Boulder is admittedly a rather extreme example, and prostitution is at least still illegal – but as David Vitter and Robert Menendez (a bipartisan pair of senators) can attest, the clients often aren’t stigmatized the way they were when Victoria reigned (as Asparagus the Cat, admittedly a creation of Eliot rather than Stevenson, would point out). Daniel Patrick Moynihan once talked of “defining deviancy down,” and if we could imagine an updated (and lengthened) copy of Stevenson’s short novel that includes what Edward Hyde really was doing when he took over Henry Jekyll’s body, we would probably find out how far down we’ve defined.
And worse yet, how many would know or care? Or would they consider society better? Hey, in a modernized story Dr. Jekyll wouldn’t need Hyde at all. Who would care if he did all that in his own persona? • (5577 views)